The last four satellites of the second batch of the European Union’s Galileo programme were being launched into orbit just after noon today as the bloc adds to its 22 similar navigation satellites in the Galileo constellation.
But the controversial alternative to the US GPS system has become a major political football and Brexit issue – with some high-ranking EU politicians saying Britain cannot have full access to the system post Brexit claiming it would pose a security risk.
British taxpayers have already contributed more than £1.2 BILLION towards the £8.5bn costs.
Theresa may has said she is confident the disagreements can be worked out but alternative arrangements including a wholly British space program and a joint enterprise with US space giant NASA are being set up.
Launching from the South American island of French Guiana, the European Space Agency will oversee the Ariane 5 rocket taking the quartet of satellites into orbit.
At around 12.05pm, UK time, the next components in the EU’s multibillion-euro Galileo programme will begin the launch sequence and head east over the Atlantic Ocean on its eight-hour journey.
The four satellites have been named after children who won a drawing competition hosted by the European Commission – Tara, Samuel, Anna and Ellen.
If successful, today’s launch will mean the European Commission and the European Space Agency have managed to put 26 satellites into orbit since 2011, keeping the Galileo network on track for full operability in 2020.
The launch is the last of the second batch of navigational platforms orders from OHB of Germany, which builds the spacecraft, and British-based firm SSTL, provider the the navigation payload.
Paul Verhoef, director of navigation at the European Space Agency, told reporters: “Here on site, everything is ready.
“The launcher is ready. The site is ready.”
Mr Verhoef insisted the programme is running on course for the European Commission to declare it fully operational in 2020.
While Galileo’s initial services were lunched in December 2016, allowing users with Galileo-enables technology to use its navigation signals, without the full compliment of at least 24 satellites there are still gaps in coverage.
Officials believe the gaps will be be closed in the next few years as the Galileo satellites begin to provide better-than-required positioning information.
Rodrigo de Costa, Galileo services programme manager at the European Global Navigation Satellite Systems Agency (GSA), said: “Not only is the Galileo performance promised to be very good, it is very good.”
Mr Verhoef said the system will be fully complete when “the constellation is complete, fully operational, with all the ground segment”.
He added: “This is often forgotten.
“The focus is always that we launch satellites, but I can tell you a lot of the deployment, in reality, is happening on the ground.
“All of that needs to be ready, included and working together as a system before you can declare any kind of operational capability.”
Once complete, the Galileo constellation will be made up of 30 satellites, 24 operational and six spares, spread among three orbital planes 14,429 miles above Earth.
Britain designed and tested rockets at a secure site on the Isle of Wight and Woomera in Australia until the Wilson government cut the program and essentially handed over British science to the fledgling European Space Agency.
The nation is now particularly well-placed to resurrect the space program as the UK boasts a glut of high-tech space tech firms and just days ago a grant of £2.5 million was awarded to Highlands and Islands Enterprise to develop the vertical launch spaceport for commercial rocket launches.
An additional £2million in development cash was earmarked for so-called horizontal spaceports in Cornwall, Glasgow, Prestwick and Snowdonia where re-usable space planes will be tested.
British company Orbex announced this week that they develop its Prime programme to launch small satellites.
Chris Larmour, CEO of Orbex, said the recent investment would transform the UK “into an important hub for commercial space launch operations”.